As if there isn’t enough whiplash-inducing nutrition advice out there, now skipping breakfast is being lauded by some as a good thing. The meal has become a casualty of a popular diet called intermittent fasting, which requires going extended periods of time without eating. The diet is such a big trend that, according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, Google searches for “intermittent fasting” have increased tenfold over the past three years, to rival the number of searches for the words “weight loss.”
It’s a diet that has been embraced by celebrities, Silicon Valley CEOs and many health experts. There are many iterations of the plan, with extreme versions requiring going days without food, but the more common and accessible variation, known as time-restricted eating, simply limits the time window in which eating is allowed each day, typically eight to 10 hours. The Washington Post’s own Food and Dining editor, Joe Yonan, tried this variation as part of the Buddha Diet he adopted for the 30-day diet challenge staffers undertook in 2016.
But for Yonan and many others, the restricted eating window resulted in skipping breakfast, which is not necessarily a good thing for many reasons. Headlines such as “Why You Should Start Skipping Breakfast: ‘Intermittent fasting’ burns fat and makes you healthier — really,” from Esquire magazine, which imply that restricted eating and a morning meal are mutually exclusive, are rampant and misleading. In fact, you can have your intermittent fasting and eat breakfast, too, and there is substantial evidence you’d be better off that way.
Stopping eating for a long stretch of time daily, as more-moderate versions of intermittent-fasting plans demand, stands in stark contrast to the 24/7 buffet most Americans feed themselves today. A 2017 scientific statement from the American Heart Association published in the journal Circulation noted that adults in the United States have moved away from the traditional three-squares-a-day and now “eat around the clock.” This constant munching affects our body’s circadian rhythms, which help regulate our metabolism, and therefore has implications for the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In essence, our bodies function better — and we are healthier — when we press pause on eating for a stretch of time each day, which is a big reason intermittent fasting is catching on.
But, importantly, the time window we choose to fast matters. Fasting in the evening and overnight, then eating early in the day is the pattern that has the most profound benefits. The research is clear that people who eat in the morning and afternoon have healthier blood lipid profiles and better blood sugar control and tend to weigh less than those who eat late in the day. And people who eat breakfast tend to have better overall nutrient intakes than those who skip it. Also, eating during the waking hours, when your mental and physical demands are highest, gives you the fuel to perform at your best.
Study after study, not just on children but on adults, too, shows that people who eat breakfast do better on cognitive and memory tests than those who skip it. The brain simply operates better when it is well fueled than in a fasting state. The same goes for exercise. Studies show that people who eat before working out perform better than those who don’t, and many people become lightheaded and weak if they try to exercise on an empty stomach. Aside from the performance downsides, there is mixed evidence of the metabolic effects of working out during a fast. Studies do show a fat-burning benefit to exercising on an empty stomach, but new research from the University of Bath indicates that eating breakfast before exercising may help the body metabolize carbohydrates better both during activity and later in the day.
Leslie Bonci, a Pittsburg-based certified sports dietitian who works with both everyday active people and professional athletes, says that more of her clients are following the intermittent-fasting trend. Several of those who exercise on an empty stomach — during their fasting window — however, have suffered from fatigue during their workouts, loss of muscle mass and difficulty recovering. In her experience, people who work out during their fast may feel fine doing so at first but suffer a cumulative effect. “People are trying to exercise and be productive throughout their day, and they are trying to do it on fumes,” she said.
Yonan realized that to stick to his plan’s nine-hour eating window, he would have to do his morning workout on an empty stomach or else eat dinner by an unrealistic 5 p.m. He was surprised that he felt fine exercising before breakfast. Ravenous afterward, though, he would bring an oat bar with him and gobble it down in the locker room before even showering. Ultimately, that became an issue for him. “More than anything, I really missed the ritual of breakfast — making my cup of matcha and my bowl of oatmeal or muesli, reading the paper, and having a slower start to the day, rather than rushing and scarfing down packaged food on a bench at the gym,” he told me. “It took the joy out of the meal.”
If you think intermittent fasting might be right for you, I encourage you to try it (with the okay of your doctor, of course), but without giving up breakfast. Establishing an early eating window to provide your body fuel when it needs it most may require a social shift if your gatherings tend to revolve around an evening meal. But you could eat this way flexibly, trying to steer plans toward brunch or lunch while making exceptions for occasional dinner get-togethers. For many families, breakfast works better than dinner as the main shared meal, as everyone is running in different directions in the evenings.
Also, you can reap many of the benefits of intermittent fasting by going for a somewhat longer but more sustainable 12-hour eating window. That gets you out of the unhealthy all-night-eating trap and affords you both a realistic wrap-up of dinner at 7:30 p.m. and the many health benefits of a nourishing breakfast.